It’s Noirvember, so it really is no surprise that I’m diving into the subject of film noir once again for this week’s Top 5. Last week I examined my favorite movies of the movement. So, this time around I wanted to spotlight some of the amazing performers. However, after making this decision, I quickly remembered just how many stellar actors and actresses were working during this era in history. So, with that being said, this was a hard, hard list to write.
Despite the darkness of the film noir movement, there are so many talented and savvy performers who brought a host of vivid and colorful characters to the screen. And in turn, so many of these portrayals have stood the test of time. In the entries below, I found myself thinking about the roles which not only defined careers, but also those which stood in opposition to established star personas, and finally those with the strength to turn a regular movie into an all-time classic.
5.) Ann Savage as Vera in Detour (1945)
It isn’t a stretch to say that Detour has the best legs of the many poverty row noirs pouring out of Hollywood during the 1940s. It’s the rough little film that could, which was recently honored with Criterion Collection preservation, as well as screenings at festivals the world over. In the seventy-five years since its release, Detour earned a reputation as one of the truest examples of film noir at its darkest. Granted, some of the movie’s reputation can most certainly be credited to the colorful and problematic Tom Neal. However, I firmly believe that much of Detour‘s success rests on the shoulders of Ann Savage.
As Vera, Savage brings one of the harshest, most evil, and unhinged noir femmes fatales to life. The actress, who spent most of her career in similar, low-budget pictures, pulls no punches in her take on the woman. Savage’s manager is quoted in her New York Times obituary, “Neal and Savage really reversed the traditional male-female roles of the time. She’s vicious and predatory. She’s been called a harpy from hell…she’s sexually aggressive, and he’s very, very passive”.
In an industry which seeks glamour at all costs, Ann Savage’s ability to sink her teeth into this fascinating character, warts and all, is a big part of the reason why Detour remains such a popular, and memorable entry in the film noir movement.
Detour is currently available to stream through the Criterion Channel.
4.) Gene Tierney as Ellen Berent Harland in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Gene Tierney brings her A-game to every role she tackles. She crafted memorable appearances in film like Laura, Night and the City and Whirlpool. These performances helped established her as one of the legends of not only the film noir movement, but Hollywood history.
Leave Her to Heaven was a relatively recent first-time-watch for me. In this stunningly beautiful (and colorful!) film noir, Tierney turns her usual star persona upside down in her take on the complicated and multi-layered Ellen. In her hands, this woman takes shape as the perfect image of post-War femininity. However, beneath the surface, there’s a growing sense throughout the movie that there’s something brewing beneath the surface. We should be worried. Very worried.
Tierney received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress of 1946, but had the bad luck of being nominated against Joan Crawford’s iconic return to form in Mildred Pierce.
Leave Her to Heaven is currently streaming on YouTube.
3.) Marilyn Monroe as Nell Forbes in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)
Don’t Bother to Knock is a film I’m always surprised isn’t mentioned more in the pantheon of all things Marilyn Monroe. The 1952 noir not only surprised, but impressed me from the first time I watched it. In fact, Don’t Bother to Knock is by far and away the most un “Monroe” as the actress ever was; and to be honest, she’s rarely better than she is right here.
Don’t Bother to Knock works as well as it does because of Monroe’s performance as troubled babysitter Nell Forbes. Monroe manages to find a sympathetic in-road to this woman, a character other performers might struggle to wrap their heads around. Monroe brings Nell’s struggle to the surface showing her to be more than simply a villain. She’s a young woman with a number of troubles. It’s a sensitive and well-crafted performance showing Monroe as far more than simply the “Bombshell” culture likes to pigeonhole her as.
Don’t Bother to Knock is available as a rental through a variety of streaming sources.
2.) Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947)
It’s very rare to see a performer make a real mark on the industry in their debut, but it does happen. Hitting theaters in 1947, Kiss of Death isn’t the most memorable or popular of the film noir movement. However, the movie is still remembered largely thanks to the performance of Richard Widmark, then a screen newcomer, as the villainous Tommy Udo.
In Widmark’s hands, Udo is vicious, villainous and pure evil. In fact, his sadistic, giggling performance established a chilling persona which lived with the actor for years. His early filmography shows him trapped in a type-casting cycle which proved very difficult to break out of. Even more surprising, Widmark recounted later in life, that for a number of years after, he was even accosted by people who were so frightened by his portrayal that they blurred fiction and reality together. Women were frightened by him in the street. Men attacked him in bars. That’s how you know you’ve really made… an impression.
Widmark received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He lost to Edmund Gwenn for Miracle on 34th Street.
Kiss of Death is available to stream on YouTube.
1.) Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker in Laura (1944)
There’s a lot to love about Laura. The movie brings a fascinating story, compelling characters, and rich visuals absolutely dripping with an unmistakable noir texture. The Otto Preminger directed picture established itself early on as not only a classic of film noir, but a true gem of 1940s cinema.
In a film which has more than its fair share of brilliant performances (Dana Andrews, Vincent Price and Gene Tierney to name just a couple), for me, few top the always delightful Clifton Webb as columnist Waldo Lydecker. Webb, who spent most of his career on stage, brings an iconic voice to the character few of his contemporaries possessed. It’s difficult to think of anyone capable of bringing the same flair to lines like, “I cannot stand these morons any longer. If you don’t come with me this instant, I shall run amok”. Clifton Webb was truly one of a kind.
Webb received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way.
Laura is widely available through a variety of sources .
When I wrote this list, I hadn’t figured it would also turn into a whose who of delightful noir villains; however, them’s the breaks! These might be my favorites, but there are so many delightful actors and actresses worthy of recognition. Who are your favorites? Shout them out in the comments.
Podcaster at Hollywood and Wine, historian and filmmaker studying contributions of women in Classic TV. Film critic for Geek Girl Authority. Classic film lover for Ticklish Business.
You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!